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Ancient Iranian Treasure Hidden in Afghan Palace?



Monday, 12 November 2001

The presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, might be sitting on 20,000 pieces of gold, according to maps in the possession of to U.S. authorities, though experts fear it could have already been sold or melted down by the Taliban.

Dating from 100 BCE, the "Golden Hoard of Bactria" — 20,000 gold pieces in all — consists of intricate Ancient Iranian and Kushan ornaments, coins, figurines showing dragon-like creatures and winged goddesses, pendants and necklaces dotted with precious stones, and even a crown covered in pearls and turquoise.

All of the pieces have varying artistic influences, since that region was an important area for Ancient Iranians, and being stop on the Silk Road, the ancient trade route between China, across Central Asia's desert to West.

The treasure was discovered by Russian archaeologist Victor Sarianidi in 1978, a year before the Soviet Union invaded the country. It was the funerary outfit of elaborately dressed men and women, who were buried at a site in northern Afghanistan called Tillya Tepe, "The Golden Mound." The treasure remained in the Kabul Museum at least until 1991.

"Rumor has it that most of the Kabul Museum items have disappeared: stolen, destroyed or maybe even have found their way to other countries' museums. I have heard a rumor that Tillya Tepe's artifacts were moved to Russia," said Ibrahim Stwodah, the General Director of Kabul University Libraries from 1970 to 1978.

To dispel those rumors, former Communist ruler President Najibullah showed the treasure to a delegation of diplomats and journalists in 1991. That was the last time it was seen. As in a fable, Najibullah sealed it in seven trunks and hid them in a vault carved out of rock underneath the presidential palace.

The vault was protected by a steel gate bolted shut by seven locks with keys held by seven people. At least three of the key holders, including Najibullah, have died.

In his last interview before he was killed by an Arab terrorist, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Taliban's chief adversary, confirmed that the treasure was in the presidential palace basement in a safe with a steel gate, but he also said that the Taliban got control of it.

Rumor has it that bin Laden arranged for it to be smuggled across the mountains to Pakistan to be sold, or that the Taliban destroyed it as they did with the colossal figures of the Bamiyan Buddhas — their opposition to any art displaying human or animal forms would confirm the hypothesis.

But according to UNESCO sources, there is a good chance that the trove is still intact.

"We think that the Bactrian Gold Treasure is still in the safe-room under the presidential palace in Kabul, but we are not certain," Christian Manhart, a specialist in Asian art at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), told Discovery News.

If it is still there, it might be spared by U.S. bombers.

"UNESCO has provided the American authorities with a list of cultural sites to protect, and through the Swiss Afghanistan Archives in Bubendorf with maps. The American reacted immediately in a very cooperative way and ensured us of their concern about the protection of cultural sites," said Manhart.

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